Oklahoma State was severely hampered in its 16-7 win over Tulsa when quarterback Spencer Sanders was forced from Saturday’s game with an apparent ankle injury in the first half, but that won’t affect the way in which the Mountaineers prepare for the Cowboys.
“We will game plan as if Sanders is going to play,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said of his team’s preparation for OSU. “Then, we’ll adjust if he doesn’t.”
OSU played two backups after Sanders went out, with true freshman Shane Illingworth, the third Cowboy QB of the day, leading the team to 13 points in the 16-7 win. That gives head coach Mike Gundy some confidence in his backup situation, but he thinks that Sanders, who will be in a walking boot through Tuesday, will be able to play on Saturday.
No matter who is taking snaps, WVU will prepare for Sanders, whose fleet feet are a defining threat for the Pokes.
“He has elite speed for the quarterback position, and you can see that from the runs he had early in the game,” Brown said of the Cowboy sophomore. “You have to prepare for that, and he can do it with called runs or in scramble situations.”
The Cowboys also had a number of issues on the offensive line, with injuries and poor play leading to shuffling up and down the front. Gundy termed the play there “below average” noting that the continuous position changes and substitutions were factors in the level of performance. OSU could be without redshirt freshman offensive tackle Cole Birmingham, who also suffered an ankle injury that was termed “more severe than Sanders,” but the personnel or their positions aren’t factors from a Mountaineer tactical perspective.
“The offensive line doesn’t affect us as far as how we are going to defend them,” Brown confirmed.
Included on the Oklahoma State line is former Mountaineer Josh Sills, who transferred to OSU for his final year after a solid career at WVU. Sills is starting at left guard for the Cowboys.
Brown expects that no matter who plays, his team will see a very different one that what was on display last week against Tulsa.
“I don’t think that’s an accurate representation of them offensively. They are an explosive offense, and have NFL players across the board at their skill positions. I expect them to play much better as a unit. When your starting quarterback goes out it’s tough to recover from. If I’m not mistaken they have returned the most players (in the league) on both sides of the ball. It’s a huge challenge but our guys are looking forward to getting on the road and getting the Big 12 started.”
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Brown understands the position Gundy may be in if Sanders is unable to go, and is familiar with the situation OSU found itself in when it had to go through two backups to find one who could move the team against Tulsa. Identifying a backup QB can be more difficult that ID’ing a starter.
“It’s extremely difficult when talking about your backup in normal situations, but with COVID restrictions and practice time minimized its even harder. Once you get into game prep time, it’s 75-80% of our practice time [with the starter],” Brown said of his team’s pre-game prep. “So you [may have to go] with a guy you don’t know really well in different settings and atmospheres, and you don’t know how guys will react. We were fortunate to play three QBs in our opener.”
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As outlined prior to last Saturdays open date, WVU spent most of its time working on itself. Game planning and preparation for the Cowboys began on Monday.
“We have had a productive bye week,” Brown observed. “We treated it just like a continuation of camp. We practiced four times, we practiced hard and we practiced physical.”
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COVID-19 considerations, from player availability to testing protocols to the difference between positive tests and contact tracing, continue to be front and center on the list of items that Big 12 coaches have to manage. With games now underway, injuries are also a concern, with the thought that lessened off-season conditioning programs could make players more susceptible to certain types of damage, including sprains and strains.
West Virginia’s off-season conditioning program, under the direction of Mike Joseph, has long been geared toward the strengthening of connective tissue to help prevent such injuries, but with players only under direct supervision for some six weeks in the summer and fall, Brown has been watchful.
“When we started back we took it seriously. During the six week return to play model, we were very guarded,” noted WVU’s second-year head coach. “We have continued [to keep track] of the load we were putting on the players. We knew we probably wouldn’t be in top shape in the opener, so we didn’t want guys to play more than 50 or so snaps in the game. We do feel good where our guys are at now.
“We are in a rhythm as far as testing, its been a month where we have been doing three tests per week,” Brown said of the COVID-19 protocols in place in the program. “But I’m never at ease until we get the results back.”
OSU’s Gundy was on a similar path, observing “we were not in very good cardiovascular shape” against Tulsa. He hopes for better measurables in that area against WVU, but didn’t mention hopes for a peak efficiency level until October.
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Conventional thinking holds that you should root for the team you are playing in their previous game so as to keep them, if not complacent, at least out of revenge or redemption mode. Brown wasn’t able to execute that tactic last Saturday.
“I was chasing my five-year-old for most of that game, so I didn’t have a chance to root for them,” he said with a laugh.